There is a scene at the dramatic heart of A Song for Jenny, in which Julie Nicholson, played by Emily Watson, stands beside her daughter’s coffin. An arm is all that lies above the sheet, so she takes Jenny’s one hand in her two hands. How short Jenny kept her nails, she thinks, as a mother would. On her own fingertips, the anointment oil glistens: she is a priest as well as a parent. And while she must have held Jenny’s hand countless times over the 24 years of her daughter’s life, all those moments of habitual intimacy have culminated in this ritual. Motherhood and priestly duty are intercut, brutally spliced – both offices held in one last clasp.
“I broke down when I got to the anointing,” Frank McGuinness says. “That was when I thought I wanted to do this.” He was reading Julie Nicholson’s book, about the death of her daughter Jenny in the Edgware Road bombing in July 2005, considering whether to take on the adaptation for television. “In the midst of all the horror, there was something beautiful and positive about it – that a woman had the courage to do that, the sacramental strength. I never thought I’d live to see the day where I saw a mother doing a priest’s job. I was thinking, even as I read it: ‘This scene could not have been done 10 years ago.’”
McGuinness, a Catholic, says he read the book straight through. “I couldn’t put it down. I bawled my eyes out. It was so beautifully written – such decorum, such accuracy. I thought: ‘I can work with this woman. If she wants to tell this story on film.’” He says the subject was one “I wouldn’t want to write for in the theatre … but film gave me the distance and the discipline.” He was drawn by its “brilliant combination of forces – political forces, cultural forces, personal forces, all deeply rooted in the death of her daughter”.
The first meetings between the two were formal, at an agent’s office. But over the following three or four years, Nicholson and McGuinness met again and again. He went to the family home, met Jenny’s boyfriend and the extended family. McGuinness and Nicholson’s friendship gathered pace, and a “creative collaboration” evolved without which McGuinness says he could not have completed the drama. Fidelity to Nicholson’s book was at the heart of his approach.
“I told her: ‘This is your book. I do not want to embroider it, I do not want to intrude anywhere you have not written.’” To that end, he read and re-read the memoir. “She knew it off by heart,” so he needed to know it off by heart as well. “Very close reading, very patient reading,” he says. Not only because he wanted to prove his care to Nicholson, but because “there could be something in two lines. Some sign of Jenny. Some truth about her.” Like Nicholson, he was looking for Julie’s daughter.
To that end, the drama follows the structure of the book: it begins with the 7/7 bombings and ends with Jenny’s funeral. The film’s first 45 minutes present the excruciating longevity of the family’s hope. For days, they avoid mentioning the obvious. Their silences are filled by the incessant low-level burble of the television and radio, the rolling news that brings no news.
But McGuinness’s fidelity does create a sense of omission. A Song for Jenny is clearly Julie Nicholson’s song, her story, but even allowing for this ownership, she still cuts a remarkably solitary figure in the drama. It is hard to watch without wondering where her husband is. If Watson’s Nicholson has a partner, it is Gwilym Lee’s James, Jenny’s boyfriend. Together they wait in hospitals, confer and support.
McGuinness would rather not talk about Nicholson’s husband, now ex-husband, saying only: “We preferred not to make that a foregrounded part of the film.” In a way, the omission adds to the sense of tragic absence. Nicholson’s losses continued to amount long after the final page of the book, the closing scenes of this drama. Failing to find a way to forgive Mohammad Sidique Khan, the Edgware Road bomber, she gave up her priesthood: she could not preach what she did not herself believe. And, of course, her marriage ended. These endings exceed the ending of the film, which chooses, instead, the simple avoidance of finality.
McGuinness says it was straightforward, to balance the responsibility to be true to a powerful news story with the need to make a drama. The material was already in the book and Nicholson “pointed out if something was missing, or something was excessive”. What sort of things? “She was keen to establish that Jenny and James were to be married shortly”, “what a truly good guy James was”, “that Jenny loved life, music literature. She was reading CS Lewis when she died”.
Surely some moments are embellished? What about the flashback in which Nicholson, about to be ordained, lifts her cassock and flashes her red lacy underwear to her daughter? “She did get ordained in lacy underwear,” McGuinness says. In another scene, a taxi driver takes Nicholson the 50 miles home free of charge. True again, McGuinness says. “The family never found him, and I think, the kind of man he is, that he wouldn’t come forward.”
Towards the close of the film, Nicholson is invited to the police station to collect her daughter’s effects (another solo mission). There is a watch with broken hands, cash to the value of £3.82, a Travelcard. And Jenny’s copy of CS Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew; the book stiffly opens, of its own accord. It is not a prop.
“That is the book she was reading. Julie hunted far and wide to find it. It is clearly the most precious thing that Julie possesses. She knew it must be somewhere, and she found it,” says McGuinness. “I nearly died when I saw it.” The pages are charred and shredded, too thickened by the bomb blast ever to hold themselves shut. It is a ferociously poignant moment in a story that cannot close.